peregrinatio: a story from the Watertime
short fiction from unpsychology magazine
This is the fourth story from the Watertime. It appears in the 8th edition of Unpsychology — an Anthology of Warm Data (available free in digital form from www.unpsychology.org and in a print edition from https://www.thegreatbritishbookshop.co.uk/collections/new/products/unpsychology-issue-8-an-anthology-of-warm-data
These stories are set in a future — in a place a bit like the UK — beset by devastating seasonal floods. The Heat has ravaged the land; and the RageTime has left an uncertain, fearful society — a world in which outliers, artists and Lostlings creep around the edges of the present, and live with the legacies of the far distant past. You can find the first three stories in previous editions of Unpsychology and online at: medium.com/unpsychologymag/bobcat-in-the-watertime- d4574035764d
You can also find the instalments on Unpsychology Voices.
- Bobcat in the Watertime is at medium.com/unpsychologymag/bobcat-in-the-watertime-d4574035764d
- This Soaring is at medium.com/unpsychologymag/this-soaring-9774af31963
- Habitants is at medium.com/unpsychologymag/habitants-a-story-from-the-watertime-95a34d6d4a5
BOBCAT IS ON A JOURNEY. The Habitant voices have named it a ‘peregrination’ and though she does not think she has ever heard the word, she likes it. It reminds her of the falcon she would watch from her tower perch high above the flooded estate, its sudden stoop never failing to thrill her. And it sounds a little bit wild — not like most words in this Teck-smoothed world. One day as she watched, the raptor fell and flew between the spaces, higher than mountains, then stooped in a column of air. It stopped time. She stared it in the eye for a moment that seemed like love and it held her gaze…
…“and I am there still”, she thinks, “following its spiral up and up and up to heaven and down again to ground in a moment”.
Gathering herself, she whispers another goodbye to her sister who is walking back to the safety of the Big House where she lives and sings and sometimes grieves. Bobcat, miles now from the insecurity of her own home, walks quickly away, already deep in the forest, even as she is remembering the sweet smell of Flute’s hair as she kissed it; even as she is tuning out her sister’s love, and tuning in to the voices that guide her.
The world is so real. Right now, even as she walks further from her home, further than she has ever been, she understands this and is comforted. She has always feared the journey — the stretch from home, as she has thought of it — but it was good to see Flute and her grand, safe and solid home, and she is reassured that the voices are still with her along the way. There is a subtle difference in their tone, she notices, but that is all right. As long as their wild words and whispers are still there for her.
The ghosts, on the other hand, might be more of an issue. The ghosts she knows — the familiar spirits of the past and the future — seemed more spe‐ cific and situated in the places she was leaving behind, now perhaps forever.
She remembers Gramma, her ancient great-grandmother whose life stretched back into the RageTime and the Fire and beyond. Her crackling voice had been a connection to the familiar ghosts: it gave them context and grounding. Without the history embedded in Gramma’s voice, Bobcat is scared that new ghosts might begin to overwhelm her. When the ghosts come — even the familiar ones — the experience is exhausting and can leave her feeling feverish and delirious. Bobcat fears the unfamiliar and the over‐ whelming, and so is stepping out with trepidation.
Peregrination: it is a word she had heard in the Habitant voices around her. She remembers her Pad still has some charge, and there might be some Contact too, as she is still quite near the Big House. So she takes it out and types in the word carefully, hoping she has spelled it right.
There it is: ‘Peregrination’. The Note says something short and vague about a long and winding journey. Well that feels about right, though she is disappointed it doesn’t have more of the hawk in it!
Above it, however, another word, almost the same, just a letter missing: ‘Peregrinatio’. This Note-thread is longer and more intriguing and the first entry seems to be an extract from a longer piece of writing. “Essentially”, it reads, “peregrinatio is a pilgrimage that does not follow a specific route or lead to a specific destination. It is leaving one’s home and wandering, but not aimlessly. It is an inward journey, with the goal of coming home to one’s true self.” Underneath someone else has added a Sub-note: “It’s walking for God, for fuck’s sake”.
Both entries puzzle her. She isn’t sure what is meant by a ‘true self’. It seems such an attenuated phrase. She assumes that the writer is referring to their experience of being a single, human Habitant, but how could this ‘self ’ be reduced to a singular ‘truth’? This seems alien to Bobcat. To Bobcat singularity is almost never experienced, and she assumes this is the same for everyone (even those who aren’t Lostlings, with the constant ebb and flow of voices and ghosts and connections and shifting time).
And the startling postscript. God. For fuck’s sake. What is God?
The stories she grew up with hold a vague memory. The name God is associated with the Fire and the RageTime and the BeforeTime. She remembers a Storydancer once who had woven an ancient tale of Flood with the Habitants of aeons ago. There had been a voice called God in that one — but she had been young, and Bobcat hadn’t understood.
Still, she likes the directness of the line. This is a ‘peregrination’, the voices tell her, but she’d rather be walking with purpose than wandering vaguely in the world. So this is ‘perigrinatio’, she decides. She is “walking for God, for Fuck’s sake” — whatever that is or was or will be.
Some of her voices seem to be chattering now; a bit like the whispered disapproval that would spread around the village fire-gathering when people had learned of some minor transgression or social indiscretion in the com‐ munity — but Bobcat likes the unfamiliar certainty in her decision, and pushes them away — for the time being at least.
Yet the voices seem to get louder, and there is singing too. This confuses Bobcat. The voices don’t sing, not in a human way, and she is confused as she often is when everything seems to be crowding into her head. She takes some breaths. The practice calms her and she tunes into her senses, as if she is a ‘self’ for a moment. She realises that the singing isn’t coming from the voices, but from somewhere ahead of her in the forest.
Naturally cautious, but perennially curious, Bobcat scouts along a curve that leaves the path, but stays connected with it. As she tracks around — near silently, because she is used to keeping quiet and staying unseen — the singing voices get louder. She smells smoke and then sees the fire and strange cloth huts pitched in the clearing (tents, she thinks they might be called.)
Although she is accustomed to the forest, her experience of humans is that they are generally creatures of manufactured habitation — most staying close to their Teck-built dwellings and quiet, tidy streets. The usual fire-gathering is a centre-of-town event and, though ritualistic, it is carefully organised and tightly supervised. Apart from the games of children, playing with fire in the half-hidden scrubland at the edge of town, she’s never seen this thing before: fire and song in the wild and a kind of tented village in the wood.
The ghosts are beginning to swarm. She has let her guard down, and they are gathering. She knows that if she stays here alone, she will fall into their swirling, grey worlds, into their histories and their constant harking after old tragedies. She could get lost in them. It has happened before, and it’s hard to come back. She remembers her last journey, the old wooden box she found and the book she is now carrying, and the agonised voice of the woman who said just one word over and over: “Flood; flood; flood; flood…”.
Bobcat hears the maddened voice as if she is listening in that empty room way back before the Fire: “I am not here. I am in a new room far from life and familiar breath; I have recently arrived here. I have taken a long draught of these bright waters. I drink them to enter heaven. I will return, will take a claim and stake it.”
She shivers and shakes herself free. She doesn’t need to be lost in that world right now. So she does the only thing she can do in this moment: Bobcat steps into the clearing.
The people there are still singing. One or two see her enter and smile, but they carry on with their song. Bobcat wonders if there is a Storydancer here (and feels a pang of loss for her brother, Jake.) Apart from one woman with a drum at the far side of the fire circle, the rest of the gathering — around 20 or so — are singing raucously but tunefully about (as far as Bobcat can work out from the chorus) a young man who moved to the City and got into a bit of a sticky mess (now that could be about Jake!). By the laughter, she reckons the song is not very tasteful (a phrase her old Gramma would use with a twinkle in her eye), but the song is coming to its end, and there are no more verses to find out the full story.
The drummer gets up from her seat and walks towards Bobcat, as the rest of the gathering disperses towards their tents, and a few head out into the forest alone or in pairs.
Bobcat feels the cold whisper of a ghost’s voice brush her cheek as the woman approaches and holds out her hands for Bobcat to grasp in the traditional greeting. It’s been a while since anyone she knows has used this salutation — not since her parents were alive — but she recognises the warmth and welcome in it and takes the woman’s hands in hers as is the custom and expectation. They are rough and warm, lined and freckled, and as she looks up she sees that the woman’s face has the same creases and patches of light brown scattering her smiling face.
Her hair is silver, gathered with a single band, and it hangs long behind her. Her clothes are…not rough-hewn exactly…but not the kind of Teck-designed garments that Bobcat is used to seeing. She feels at home with this woman, somehow. There is a touch of freedom about her: someone used to wandering, and finding the spaces between the edges of things; someone used to stretching beyond home; someone (perhaps) familiar with the ways of ghosts and the voices of Habitants and of the world.
“Who is God?” she blurts. (“Why did I say that?” she thinks) and the woman laughs — a deep, rumbling, joyous laugh — and Bobcat blushes and feels small for a moment, but then smiles. The nature of the laugh tells her that here is someone who understands her world, the real world, the ground, and the visions, and the way a small human can get lost (sometimes in a good way) in everything that surrounds her.
“I don’t know” says the woman, “but you are a pilgrim, I think…”
“I’m travelling, yes”, answers Bobcat, “I thought I was walking for God”. She feels awkward for a moment, and then realises that this is the first human apart from Flute, and Jake on Pads, that she has spoken to for such a very long time. She feels sad. Understands, in a moment of clarity, what it is she has lost.
The women looks thoughtful, “A pilgrim travels to find something, true, or to leave somewhere. But the moment she tries to name what she seeks, it disappears. Words are delicious, but cannot say much. They’re like smoke: you can follow, but can never grasp hold. And yet we can be guided at any rate, taken in a direction for a while, until we turn another way.”
Bobcat says, “I have voices who tell me I must travel”…
“Then travel”, the woman replies, with a smile that implies that the problem is entirely solved.
“But I don’t know where to go, There is something I have to do, but…”
“You don’t know what it might be.”
“Yes,” Bobcat whispers. “Can you help me find it out?”
The woman smiles, a little sadly. “That might be,” she says, “a very cold question”. She pauses. “Stay a while”, she adds, and turns back to her seat at the edge of the fire, where the drum waits for her.
The camp finds a new rhythm as people move in and through the forest and the clearing; in and out of tents; around the fire — and some are following the smoke, it seems to Bobcat. There is chat and conversation, and for the first time she feels that the voices of the Habitants and the earth and the people around her are intermingled. There are distinct strands and connections as the voices weave, and even the ghosts have quietened, but it feels …not whole exactly…but righteous.
And then the drum starts up again and others play instruments and there is a chaotic, joyful moment when the music comes together, and another where it falls apart, and a voice rising that reminds her of Flute singing. As another person moves and sways she remembers Jake dancing his stories somewhere far away in the City. She remembers Mamma and Dadda and Gramma and the stories that brought her here. And Bobcat gets up, and dances.
When it is late and the dancing is over, and she is sitting with some food and a cup of something strong, she turns to the woman (whose name she still does not know, and never will) and asks another question that she thinks might be warmer.
“What do I need?” she asks. “What is needed?”
And the woman smiles that grave smile again, and answers Bobcat: “Tenderness is what you need, little one. In this time…so much tenderness is needed”.
1. The definition of ‘peregrinatio’ comes from “What is Peregrinaio”, by David Sanucciat: https://medium.com/peregrinatio-blog/what-is-peregrinatio-2bfac936fa5b
2. The lines,“Words are delicious, but cannot say much” and “in this time…so much tenderness is needed”, are by Nora Bateson; the first from her book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles, (Triarchy Press, 2016); the second from an online conversation between us in March 2020, just after the start of the first COVID lockdown.